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Docs of the Dead: The Danger of the ‘Late, Great Artist’ Documentary

How a recent slate of gone-too-soon portraits have paid tribute to beloved artists — and risked turning their entire life stories into nothing but inevitable tragedies

Robin Williams, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse

How gone-too-soon documentaries on Robin Williams, Whitney Houston and others risk reducing their life stories to nothing but tragedies.

Alex Berliner/BEI/REX/Shutterstock; Graham Wiltshire/REX/Shutterstock; Tom Oldham/REX/Shutterstock

“Hey, did you see that new documentary? The one about that great performer who died really young? And the other one about the musician/actor/comedian who was tragically taken too soon from us? Yeah, it was really sad — you think these talented people have these amazing lives, but I guess some artists are just really tormented by their demons.”

If you overheard someone saying the above, what movies would you guess they were talking about? Would they be 2015’s one-two punch of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, about the Nirvana frontman who took his own life at age 27, and Amy, the Oscar-winning portrait of acclaimed soul singer Amy Winehouse, who died from “alcohol toxicity” at age 27? Maybe the person is talking about this spring’s The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, the HBO documentary about the influential, spiritually restless Larry Sanders Show creator who spent his whole life seeking inner peace, dying at 66 from a blood clot in his heart? Or maybe it’s Whitney, the doc that came out earlier this month about Whitney Houston, who died at age 48 from a combination of drowning, heart disease and cocaine?

Those aforementioned descriptions could also just as easily apply to Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, which chronicles the life and death of the beloved comedian, who committed suicide in August 2014 at the age of 63. Sensitively directed by Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired), the new HBO documentary draws from archival footage and contemporary interviews with Williams’ friends, family and peers, as well as audio recordings of the man himself discussing his insecurities and drives. It’s a sketch of Williams in the abstract, giving us a sense of who he was outside his hit movies and electric public appearances. All the while, the film keeps circling back to a core, cruel irony: For a man who entertained so many, Robin Williams struggled to find happiness.

Come Inside My Mind is a touching, engaging documentary … and it’s also eerily familiar. The film’s construction, objectives and conclusion don’t sound all that different from that of Amy, or Montage of Heck, or Whitney. (It also shares a lot of common ground with the recent slate of “I Am” nonfiction tributes: 2015’s I Am Chris Farley, 2017’s I Am Heath Ledger, the upcoming I Am Paul Walker.) And the Williams doc exudes the same bittersweet quality as those other films, each of them expressing the same point: Wasn’t it a shame what happened to him/her?

Tolstoy famously observed that, while all happy families are alike, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And yet, when capable, compassionate filmmakers tell the stories of those who died, their subjects’ lives get condensed into the same neat, predictably poignant narrative. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but troubled artists get a one-size-fits-all misery to represent their complicated existence. Are all visionary, anguished performers essentially the same? Or does it help us, the audience, if we believe that?

Let’s start by stating what should be obvious: Each of these movies is an effective and affecting piece of work, the labor of filmmakers who approached their subject matter with clear sympathy, often because of an emotional connection to the deceased. Zen Diaries director Judd Apatow had known Shandling most of his life, getting his start in comedy thanks to his mentor. Amy‘s Asif Kapadia took on the Winehouse project in part to lament how society feasts on celebrities’ public misery. And yet the similarity of all these films’ compassion — their shared sad shrug at what these artists failed to reconcile within themselves — can’t help but start to feel numbingly repetitive … and occasionally, even lazy or cynical.

On one level, these documentaries’ cookie-cutter construction is understandable, conveying the universal shock and confusion that occurs in the wake of an artist’s untimely death. Just like these subjects’ fans, the films are sifting through the pieces, trying to comprehend unfathomable tragedy. Not surprisingly, then, many of these posthumous portraits play as investigations, hoping to offer an “explanation” for what led to the tragedy. These works don’t stoop to condense the complexity of a life into a Rosebud-like ah-ha! moment, but predictable harbingers of future woe usually pop up. Sometimes, phenomenal early success makes the performer rich and famous, which only exacerbates their most self-destructive qualities, especially around controlled substances (Montage of Heck, Amy). Routinely, childhood traumas — in the case of Shandling, a dead brother; in the case of Houston, sexual abuse — determine the performer’s destiny, leaving them permanently broken. In Come Inside My Mind, the “answers” aren’t quite as clear-cut: Those around Williams paint him as a brilliant, explosive comic who was very quiet and reflective in private, as if he needed to recharge his battery before his next assault of a stand-up stage or talk-show appearance.

No matter the subject’s individual fate — either death by one’s own hand or through chemicals or poor health — these movies position the artist’s demise as the story’s looming, mournful inevitability. As a result, the performers’ passing carries more weight than any of their accomplishments. That’s especially true if the death is still fresh: In Zen Diaries and Come Inside My Mind, interview subjects sometimes fight back tears. (Williams’ Mork & Mindy costar Pam Dawber can’t even talk about his suicide.)

For friends and fans alike, that trauma can be an emotional wound that never cauterizes. (Montage of Heck memorably opens with Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, decades removed from Cobain’s suicide, still grappling with the loss.) But by positioning their films as well-meaning, sentimental tributes, these directors can do a disservice by emphasizing their subjects’ death above all else. It’s common in such docu-biographies to close with the performer’s passing, lingering on its sadness before offering one last hopeful message about the person’s lasting legacy. And while that tug-of-war between grief and happy reminiscences will be recognizable to anyone coping with loss in their own lives, these movies’ default resolution tactic can come across as codified, even glib.

An exception to this tendency illustrates the wisdom in shaking up the formula. In Montage of Heck, Morgen doesn’t end with Cobain’s suicide, instead closing the film with the musician’s galvanizing performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” from MTV Unplugged, recorded about six months before he shot himself. Rather than succumbing to the tragic-death-of-an-artist trope, Morgen allows Cobain a final moment of glory as he bracingly turns an old folk tune in a personal, riveting statement of romantic anguish.

Instead of encasing his subject in gooey amber, Morgen finds a way to let him be eternal, presenting the rawness and contradictions of Cobain’s artistry — which was always full of such rage and tenderness — as his true final will and testament. Montage of Heck doesn’t offer a benign fare-thee-well: It celebrates Cobain as if he was as alive now as he ever was.

Which, for the greatest artists, is always the case. When Whitney commemorates Houston’s exceptional rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl, the moment remains so startling that the tear-stained tone does nothing to diminish its power. Houston’s transcendent singing won’t allow anything, not even her own death, to upstage that performance. It’s one of the few opportunities in the film where we feel like we really see Whitney — which is odd since the documentary offers so much behind-the-scenes footage from her personal life.

But this is an illusion many of these docu-biographies try to sell: the notion that intimate videos provide a “realer” portrait of the artist than what we knew of their public selves. Come Inside My Mind has ample access to Williams’ outtakes and home movies, using them as a guide to the “authentic” Robin. Zenovich doesn’t approach this strategy in a disingenuous way, but the familiar contours of Mind‘s narrative — pairing behind-the-scenes footage with famous clips from his movies — encourage the audience to adopt a voyeuristic, almost judgmental attitude toward celebrities. Look at the parts of themselves they hid from us all along!

The respectful approach of so many of these films actually rob death of its sting, producing carefully manicured reproductions of grieving. While it may simply be a question of access or timing, many of these directors offer after-the-fact portrayals of legendary figures, mourning at a comfortable remove, complete with polished talking-head interviews and anodyne soundtracks. (This formal strategy is the one aspect these movies share with this summer’s biggest documentary smash, the nostalgic, cheery and persuasive portrait of Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) Compare these films to the unflinching depiction of mortality illustrated in 2014’s Life Itself, in which Hoop Dreams director Steve James spends time chronicling Roger Ebert, only realizing once the project began how close to death the film critic was. Life Itself is moving, but it’s also honest about illness — Ebert was diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and passed away in 2013 — without trying to prettify the anguish. For all the pain in so many recent tragic-artist documentaries, they don’t have nearly as much brutal candor about what it’s like to be close to the end as Life Itself does.

Anyone tuning in to Come Inside My Mind for a warm look back at Robin Williams’ life and career won’t be disappointed. It’s an honorable tearjerker that’s informative and thoughtful. But as much as it makes you reflect on Williams’ life, it may also make you think about Amy Winehouse’s. Or Kurt Cobain’s. Or Garry Shandling’s. These documentarians want us to go beyond their subjects’ media image to understand who they were as people. But they tell their stories in a way that feels prepackaged, letting the humanity take a backseat to a familiar, maybe even comforting narrative of tormented geniuses who flew too close to the sun. We want to learn more about the artists who shaped our lives, but something remains unknowable about their greatness and their demons. These flawed, searching documentaries are our meager attempt at making peace with that irreducible truth.

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